Every publication on planet Earth is publishing best-of lists at this time of year—and we're no different.
We've asked some of our resident music writers about their favorite albums of 2011, and here's what they gave us. Another round of writers will weigh in on the same topic next week.
(in alphabetical order)
The Black Keys, El Camino (Nonesuch)
Even after a string of great albums, the primal blues-rock duo have exceeded all expectations with an amazing set of tunes that finds drummer Patrick Carney and singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach stretching out to embrace British rock, glam and Memphis-style soul. Proving the diversity of roots rock, it's a triumph.
Kate Bush, 50 Words for Snow (Fish People/ANTI-)
The reclusive British queen of art-rock—often imitated, never approximated—released two albums his year. Director's Cut reworked older tunes and met with mixed reactions. This lush, introspective and all-new song cycle examines love, loss, sensuality, ghosts, memories and, well, snow: extra credit for "Snowed in at Wheeler Street," a duet with Sir Elton.
Noah Gundersen, Family (self-released)
My favorite recording of 2011. Props are due to TV's Sons of Anarchy for turning me on to two songs by this remarkable Seattle-based folk-rock singer-songwriter. Both are on this seven-song EP, available for a reasonable price at bandcamp.com. Most of the stark, haunting and emotionally wrenching cuts here feature just Gundersen's fragile voice and fiercely strummed acoustic guitar, with the occasional addition of violin and vocal harmonies by his sister Abby.
John Martyn, Heaven and Earth (Liaison)
A genius master of jazzy British folk rock, Martyn was troubled and sick toward the end of his life, but such is not reflected in the songs he was working on when he died almost three years ago. Clear-eyed, joyful, glimmering and funky, these songs are worthy additions to his legacy. Also worth seeking out is Johnny Boy Would Love This, a two-CD tribute to Martyn, which was also released this year.
Mastodon, The Hunter (Reprise)
The best metal band of the current era returned this year with its best work yet. After becoming known for extended epics, this foursome keeps many of the tunes here to 3 1/2-minute pop-song length, without losing any of their power, song-craft or pure gnarliness. There are moments here to make a middle-age man feel like he's 13 again.
Tom Waits, Bad as Me (ANTI-)
Waits has a handful of flawless albums to his credit, but this one shows the maestro effectively combining his early pulp-novel singer-songwriter tendencies with the junkyard-blues and barroom operettas of his later years. Not one clunker in this set.
Washed Out, Within and Without (Sub Pop)
I'm still not sure what "chillwave" is supposed to mean, but this full-length debut by Georgia's Ernest Greene damn well gives me the chills, with its gorgeous electronic-based grooves, and a sexy mood that seems caught between sleep and waking, wistfulness and euphoria. Music as drugs? Right here.
Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest (Acony)
The first new album in eight years by this monumentally talented folk-Americana singer-songwriter and her companion, David Rawlings (whose guitar-playing and harmony vocals are essential), is mostly acoustic and stripped down to the emotional, musical essence. One of the best recent examples of how sad songs make you feel better.
Wild Flag, Wild Flag (Merge)
Perhaps this year's best-pedigreed band features members who have established reputations in Sleater-Kinney, Helium and The Minders. The debut album kicks ass with alt-rock oomph, inventive melodies, classic-rock hooks and charming, quirky vocals. I worship at the altar of singer-guitarist (and actress, in TV's Portlandia) Carrie Brownstein.
Yuck, Yuck (Fat Possum)
Nodding to influential indie-rock bands of the 1980s and '90s such as Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement, this combo from London features members who were barely born when those bands started. They play the endlessly catchy tunes here as if they're just discovering the sound themselves.
Hip-Hop: The two albums that most channel that beloved '90s Native Tongues vibe are Kendrick Lamar's Section.80 (Top Dawg) and Doomtree's No Kings (Doomtree). Shabazz Palaces' Black Up (Sub Pop)—starring an ex-Digable Planet, no less—goes the more-deconstructionist route, and no other album sounds quite like it. Meanwhile, gloriously noisy Death Grips' Exmilitary (Third Worlds) might be the year's best dark thrill. For the year's best filthy thrill, I'm divided between Danny Brown's XXX (Fool's Gold) and Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire's Lost in Translation (Mishka).
Goth Fantasia: Austra's bleak-pop masterpiece Feel It Break (Paper Bag/Domino) might be my personal favorite of the year, with its wall-to-wall cobwebs and bass clutter, but John Maus' We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves (Ribbon) is a close second. It is gorgeous horror-cheese, like the soundtrack to a lost Lucio Fulci film. Zola Jesus also delivered with Conatus (Sacred Bones), an album I might describe as "sarcophagus cabaret ambience," and it serves as a fine counterpoint to Gang Gang Dance's maximalist, danceable macabre on Eye Contact (4AD).
Loud: Yuck's Yuck (Fat Possum) is the year's most-cogent bit of '90s nostalgia, recalling the guitar assault of Bug-era Dinosaur Jr. The year's
best guitar epic, though, is undoubtedly Fucked Up's David Comes to Life (Matador). Iceage's New Brigade (What's Your Rupture?), on the other hand, is a masterpiece of postpunk clamor that comes in at less than 25 minutes.
Dance: Britney Spears put out her career-best, Femme Fatale (Jive), as delectable and perfect a mainstream pop record as there ever was. Katy B's On a Mission (Columbia) is a wonderful kitchen-sink dance record that is elevated, not contained, by all its references. Class Actress' Rapprocher (Carpark) was my morning record of the year, and had me dancing while making coffee and walking the dogs.
Electro: My heart was stolen equally by SBTRKT's SBTRKT (Young Turks) and Justice's Audio, Video, Disco (Ed Banger), the former for its perfect stark chill, and the latter for its infectious, fiery enthusiasm. Emika also debuted Emika (Ninja Tune), a record that is kind of bitchy, kind of haunting, and thoroughly lovely. I also loved Neon Indian's Era Extraña (Mom + Pop) for its effortless cinematic grandeur.
R&B: I cannot choose which I love more: Beyoncé's 4 (Columbia), the year's best bit of musical fan-fic, or Kelly Rowland's Here I Am (Universal Motown), the year's best R&B crowd-pleaser. I also adore Lloyd's sort-of-trashy King of Hearts (Interscope) for its swagger and playfulness. And I've got a soft spot for Drake's spacious and "introspective"—that is, navel-gazing—Take Care (Cash Money).
Singer-Songwriter: Lykke Li's Wounded Rhymes (Atlantic) has been my most-consistently listened-to album of the year—I love how it is spooky and grimy and witty all at once. The spectral folk-pop on PJ Harvey's Let England Shake (Vagrant) made me fall back in love with an artist I'd spent a good 10 years away from. The boy who most broke my heart this year is Kurt Vile. His Smoke Ring for My Halo (Matador) has been my rainy-day music during our winter storms. When the sun comes out, I put on Real Estate's Days (Domino).
So many staggering albums to choose from, so little space. Here's a list of top discs that made 2011 such a remarkable year to be a music fan and critic.
Best Electronic/Dance: M83, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming (Mute)—The consistency and sheer beauty of M83's double-album magnum opus—boasting a whopping 22 songs—beggars belief. The band's mastermind, Anthony Gonzalez, has fashioned a huge-sounding tribute to the wild emotional terrain of adolescence, a time in our lives when we haven't yet learned how to temper our aspirations, to reality-check our imaginations. From the stratosphere-scraping sax solo in the darkly stunning "Midnight City" to the epic, Vangelis-cribbed, Blade Runner-esque synth waves of "My Tears Are Becoming a Sea," Dreaming dazzles on every level, with every note. Sure, it's overwrought at times, but that's the idea—remember when you were 16? If not, pick this up, and let your heart feel something again.
Best Folk/Country: A.A. Bondy, Believers (Fat Possum)—Edging out incredible releases in 2011 by Gillian Welch, Ryan Adams and Bon Iver, this mesmerizing, road-haunted masterpiece by Alabama-born singer-songwriter Bondy never fails to cause everyone in the house to instantly fall quiet when played on a proper stereo system. Written on tour buses and recorded in California, where Bondy took up surfing for the first time, these gorgeous, ocean-kissed, tides-attuned songs make Jack Johnson sound like Gidget. The spectral R&B pulse of "Surfer King" is unlike anything else, while the shimmering guitar arpeggios of "The Twist"—about wrenching one's heart, not one's hips—will leave you dazed and delighted.
Best Indie-Rock: Yuck, Yuck (Fat Possum)—Wait, what, another impossibly amazing Fat Possum release this year? Yep. London quartet Yuck chuck out everything they (and we) have heard in alt-rock since 1991, zeroing in on the classic, pre-grunge, pseudo-shoegaze, noisy-pop sounds of American guitar-centric bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. Everything clicks here—the male-female vocal interplay, the fuzzed-out leads, the slacker-celebrating lyrics—and there isn't a bum song, even if a few of the titles (for instance, "Suck") suggest otherwise. The seven-minute "Rubber" envelops you in a droning, distortion-ravaged yet melodic cocoon; jaunty "Georgia," meanwhile, is crunchy bubblegum. Yuck's debut offers much to chew on.
Best Metal: Altar of Plagues, Mammal (Profound Lore)—Releases by Wolves in the Throne Room and Hammers of Misfortune sit atop the lists of many metal critics, for good reason. But the album that frightens me enough to hide in a closet was crafted by Irish black-metal quartet Altar of Plagues. Mammal bears more than a few elements of atmospheric post-rock—for example, the chiming clean-guitar passages that bring to mind the chamber-rock orchestrations of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But once guitarist James Kelly and bassist Dave Condon begin shrieking their apocalyptic lyrics, any genre confusion ends—that is, until you experience "When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean," which includes "keening," or traditional-Gaelic funeral singing. I get the uneasy feeling Altar of Plagues is lamenting our collective extinction as a species. God help you if you don't already own this.
Best Power-Pop: Kirby Krackle, Super Powered Love (kirbykracklemusic.com)—Punching out three catchy-as-hell comic-book-themed rock albums in three years is no easy feat, but the hottest music duo on the comics-convention circuit makes it look easy. Wordsmith Jim Demonakos and tunesmith Kyle Stevens demonstrate a knack for penning punchy power-pop about geek dreams—from having a superheroine for a girlfriend (title track) to crossing Thor's "Rainbow Bridge" to hunting Decepticons ("Hunt 'Em All Down"). This year's disc, Super Powered Love, is their most ambitious, a conceptual take on nerd culture and how it masks a desire to be loved for being different. Classic guitar-pop songwriting doesn't get any better.
Best R&B/Neo-Soul: Jill Scott, The Light of the Sun (Warner Bros.)—C'mon, Drake ain't real R&B! Adele's 21 is terrific, sure, but this year's winner is Scott's glowing Sun, her first studio effort in four long years, and a complex, cross-genre foray into everything from jazz to gospel to pop. The plaintive, piano-based, orchestra-backed plea of "Hear My Call" is stunning, as is her infectious, upbeat, Marvin Gaye-reminiscent hit with Anthony Hamilton, "So in Love." And, let's face it: There wasn't a better baby-making slow jam than "So Gone (What My Mind Says)." Nothing dispels clouds of despair and confusion like Scott's astonishing voice.